Friday, September 28, 2018

The Modern Nightmare

Headline in a Japanese magazine:
4,000 Lonely Deaths a Week
And a case study:
To many residents in Mrs. Ito’s complex, the deaths were the natural and frightening conclusion of Japan’s journey since the 1960s. A single-minded focus on economic growth, followed by painful economic stagnation over the past generation, had frayed families and communities, leaving them trapped in a demographic crucible of increasing age and declining births. The extreme isolation of elderly Japanese is so common that an entire industry has emerged around it, specializing in cleaning out apartments where decomposing remains are found.

“The way we die is a mirror of the way we live,” said Takumi Nakazawa, 83, the chairman of the resident council at Mrs. Ito’s housing complex for the past 32 years.

Summer was the most dangerous season for these lonely deaths, and Mrs. Ito wasn’t taking any chances. Birthday or not, she knew that no one would call, drop a note or stop by to check on her. Born in the last year of the reign of Emperor Taisho, she never expected to live this long. One by one, family and friends had vanished or grown feeble. Ghosts, of the living and dead, now dwelled all around her in the scores of uniform buildings she and her husband had rushed to in 1960, when all of Japan seemed young.

“Now every room is mine, and I can do as I please,” Mrs. Ito said. “But it’s no good.”

She had been lonely every day for the past quarter of a century, she said, ever since her daughter and husband had died of cancer, three months apart. Mrs. Ito still had a stepdaughter, but they had grown apart over the decades, exchanging New Year’s cards or occasional greetings on holidays.

So Mrs. Ito asked a neighbor in the opposite building for a favor. Could she, once a day, look across the greenery separating their apartments and gaze up at Mrs. Ito’s window?

Every evening around 6 p.m., before retiring for the night, Mrs. Ito closed the paper screen in the window. Then in the morning, after her alarm woke her at 5:40 a.m., she slid the screen back open.

“If it’s closed,” Mrs. Ito told her neighbor, “it means I’ve died.”

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

We have the means to solve these kinds of problems. We just seem to lack the will.

We know what the fix to isolation is - engagement with other people. But our social and governmental systems simply aren't designed to help that happen. People grow old, their loved ones die off, and the expectation seems to be that we just leave them to their own devices, presumably because it's the cheapest, easiest solution.

But we could be doing so much more to combat things like this, if we only so chose.

We could be building communities designed specifically to promote sociality and engagement among the elderly. And not just the sad current state of affairs of "retirement homes", where people simply get sent to await their demises among other doomed invalids.

We need actual full blown communities, populated by people of all ages, where the elderly can be an active part of real life. We need housing developments with shared communal spaces, where the elderly can have regular, healthy interactions with a broad variety of people who are their neighbors. We need to promote a place for them within these community, letting them both receive and provide community benefits.

Imagine an apartment complex which incentivizes and facilitates young people interacting with their elderly neighbors every day. Imagine it giving people like students and single parents discounted rents in exchange for volunteering their time to help with community efforts and events. Imagine it having a nice communal dining hall and kitchen, where people congregate to share meals and socialize. Imagine it having a daycare center where the elderly residents can volunteer their time and childrearing expertise, keeping them engaged while also saving their young neighbors time, stress, and money having to get daycare elsewhere. Imagine it having a communal library where the elderly can read to the children, and a garden where they can grow flowers or food for the kitchens, and a media room where the whole community can watch films, play music, work on crafts and hobbies...

These are are things that we can and should be doing. We've got tons of elderly people who are bored and lonely, and we've got tons of young people who are overworked and inexperienced. We need symbiosis between these different groups. It would help in so many ways, and probably even save money and resources in the end.